Friday, October 21, 2011

Stalin, the Disillusioner

To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . .
We must learn from Stalin
his sincere intensity
his concrete clarity. . . .
Stalin is the noon,
the maturity of man and the peoples.
Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . .
                 Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Stalin”

By  1970 Stalin was no longer "the noon." The Swedish Academy that year awarded the Nobel  Prize for Literature to Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose personal experience with Stalinism as reflected in his writings was not so much an occasion of pride. But the next year amnesia swept over the Academy and it awarded the prize to none other than Pablo Neruda who had penned his nauseating Ode shortly after the tyrant's death in 1953.
The foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the official line of the Communist International (Comintern) were relentlessly anti-Fascist throughout the early and mid-nineteen thirties. The Popular Front line of the Comintern called for collaboration by all parties on the Left to combat the threat of Fascism represented most menacingly by Hitler.  On August 23rd 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed making the Soviet Union and the Third Reich (heretofore ferocious ideological antagonists) comrades, so to speak.  Within a week, the Wehrmacht had begun punching its way through western Poland giving the shell-shocked Poles their first taste of what helotry under the Nazi swastika would feel like.  The signatures on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had turned on the light green for Hitler to begin his conquest of Europe, and it was the beginning of the end for most of Poland’s Jews.  Stalin for his part dispatched his Gestapo-resembling NKVD to round up thousands of Poles on the Eastern side of the country and ship them in cattle cars to the Gulag.  From the west came the Wehrmacht, from the east, the Red Army.  The Poles in 1939 with no succor from their allies were trapped in a crushing vice of terror, murder and annihilation.
The Hitler-Stalin pact was very hard, to say the least, on the morale of many true-believing Communists, particularly those in the West who had rallied to Stalin and the USSR because it was the bulwark against Fascism and Hitler.  Now it was hard not to conclude that Stalin’s much vaunted anti-Fascism had always been a cynical posturing and a cover for his opportunism.  In reality, the best definition of a “Fascist” was: "Stalin’s enemy du jour.”        
After his death, Stalin continued to disillusion the faithful.  In February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev stood before his Communist colleagues at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow and denounced his former boss, mentor and God of the entire communist world, Joseph Stalin, for his crimes.  The facade of the greatest genius in history now was showing some cracks. To be sure, Stalin’s wily successor was selective in his denunciation.  He had to be since he himself had long been a loyal Stalin lieutenant and over the years had diligently carried out many of the General Secretary’s lethal initiatives.  A survivor of many high level party purges, he was stained from head to toe with Ukrainian blood from the 1930s.  However, Stalin was three years dead and in embalmed repose next to Lenin. And so, the time had come for Khrushchev to take his mentor to task for his creation of the Stalin “Cult of Personality” and the shabby treatment of his fellow Bolsheviks many of whom had been framed, defamed, shot or thrown into the Gulag. 
Khrushchev, however, needed to walk a fine line in all of this.  To try to take Stalin down completely would have been suicidal for him since those he was addressing either had been long complicit in Stalin’s dirty deeds just as he had been, or at the least were beneficiaries of the system of terror.  In fact, Khrushchev was undertaking the very unenviable, some might say impossible, task of trying to extract and expunge Stalin’s long erected cult of personality from the edifice of Stalinism itself.   Moreover, Khrushchev himself was Stalinist to the core, not averse to applying whatever amount of coercion and deceit was sufficient to maintain power. He still believed in the Soviet system that Lenin and Stalin had put in place and the Communist promise of triumph over capitalism. And he would never doubt the Bolshevik exclusive entitlement to total power and would crush those who ever attempted to challenge it. 
Though Stalin was dead, his successors, including Khrushchev, presided over a one-party police state that was still relentlessly Stalinist in its dishonesty, ruthlessness and jealousy of power.  The Poles, Hungarians and Czechs would all to their sorrow come to know this soon. Khrushchev’s daring and myth-shattering exorcism was in reality a desperate attempt to square a circle, to double down and load up all the blame of the decades-long Soviet practice of political murder and slavery entirely on Stalin, now safely dead and so purify and legitimize the Party.  
Khrushchev’s speech was a secret one – for the ears of the Party members only. The truth, or rather the fractured, self-serving version of it that Khrushchev had conjured up for this occasion was only supposed to be for his colleagues.  It could not be shared with the vast numbers of Russian people whose family members had been Stalin’s victims. It was all highly ironic and the secret was too much to contain. This too sent shock waves through the Communist world. Eight months later the Hungarians tried to throw off their Stalinist masters.  In the West, disillusionment with Communism was high with defections of the party-faithful widespread.  The Communist Party of Great Britain lost a quarter of its membership in the two years following Khrushchev’s speech. [Robert Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, 442]  All in all, Khrushchev’s speech was itself an amazing gesture, an attempt at redemption, a vintage work of Bolshevik deception and dishonesty.  As he stood among Stalin’s accomplices, he made the Communist party to be a victim of Stalin.  Perhaps in some respects he was right. No one, not even the wielders of power and the upholders of Communist authority, could live in a system that was so coercive, cynical and dishonest and not fall in some way a victim to it.

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